x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Obama ramps up drive for Congress support on Syria

US administration officials to push the case for action as the president seeks backing in the face of opposition from Russia, China and others. Phil Sands reports

Anti-war demonstrators protest in front of the White House against a possible US attack on Syria.
Anti-war demonstrators protest in front of the White House against a possible US attack on Syria.

ISTANBUL // Diplomatic manoeuvering around possible US military intervention continued yesterday as the US president, Barack Obama, sought support from two outspoken senators for possible action against the regime of the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad.

Mr Obama faces opposition at home and abroad with Russia saying yesterday that American evidence of Assad regime gas attacks near Damascus was "absolutely unconvincing".

But the US secretary of state, John Kerry, said yesterday that Washington had proof sarin gas was used in chemical attacks by the regime on August 21 while Reuters reported that a US aircraft carrier battle group was being positioned in preparation for strikes, should they be ordered.

Mr Kerry, along with the Pentagon chief, Chuck Hagel, will testify to the senate foreign relations committee today in what will be one of the most high-profile political set pieces in Washington in weeks.

Mr Kerry will then meet European Union foreign ministers on Saturday in Lithuania - two days before US Congress returns from summer recess - to discuss the situation in Syria.

Before Congress resumes, Mr Obama will try to win support for limited military action and senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham were expected to meet the US president yesterday. They are arguing for robust action against the Syrian regime and both have threatened to vote against Mr Obama if his plan does not help Syrian rebels.

While Mr McCain and Mr Graham, who are both Republicans, are arguing for an aggressive US approach to helping the rebels unseat Mr Al Assad, other MPs oppose intervention in Syria.

Democrats in the house of representatives were to participate in a conference call yesterday with senior officials in the Obama administration.

"We know that the regime ordered this attack," Mr Kerry said yesterday. "We know they prepared for it. We know where the rockets came from. We know where they landed. We know the damage that was done afterwards."

Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said: "There was nothing specific there, no geographic co-ordinates, no names, no proof that the tests were carried out by the professionals.

"There are many doubts, there are no facts, just talk about 'we probably know this'."

Mr Lavrov warned that US military action would lead to a further postponement of the Geneva 2 negotiations, which are an effort to find a political solution.

Negotiations have proven unsuccessful in the face of bitter divisions between Mr Al Assad and his backers in Moscow and Iran, and the fractured Syrian opposition and its supporters in the West and Arab Gulf.

Lingering alarm within the regime about possible US military strikes was underlined in a letter to the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, from Syria's representative to the UN, Bashar Al Jaafari.

"The Syrian government calls on the UN secretary general to assume his responsibilities and to make efforts to prevent any aggression against Syria," Mr Al Jaafari is reported to have written.

"The Syrian government repeats once again that is has never used chemical weapons."

The foreign minister of Iran, Mohammad Javed Zarif, has also been in contact with the UN chief over Syria.

France has been supportive of US strikes while other European countries have been reticent. The British parliament voted against military intervention on Thursday, which was a shock defeat for prime minister David Cameron, who has been an advocate of strikes against the Assad regime.

A senior French government Socialist said yesterday that France should not bow to calls from opposition figures to have MPs vote on whether to take military action in Syria.

"In a complicated situation like this, we need to stick to principles, in other words the constitution, which does not oblige the president to hold a vote, nor even a debate," said the foreign affairs committee chief, Elisabeth Guigou, who is a veteran of the ruling Socialist Party.

Francois Hollande, the French president, is army commander in chief under the French constitution and empowered to order an intervention.

Russia, the major arms supplier to Mr Al Assad's forces and a crucial ally in the international arena, dismissed the latest US claims to have evidence that Syrian regime forces did attack the suburbs of Damascus with chemical weapons.

IRIB, an Iranian state broadcaster, said on Sunday Mr Zarif had warned the secretary general that "military intervention in Syria has damaging consequences, control of which will be very difficult".

Alongside Russia, Iran is the other principle ally for Mr Al Assad, and has provided financial and military support to his regime in its efforts to crush a rebellion, in what is increasingly taking shape as a regional sectarian war.

China, the third main backer of the Syrian regime, added its voice against US military action, saying it was "gravely concerned" at the prospect. Beijing insisted no action could be taken until a report by UN weapons inspectors had been completed.

Meanwhile Israel threw its support behind the US, its long time benefactor. The prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, yesterday said he had "full faith" in Mr Obama's "moral and operational stance".

psands@thenational

* With additional reporting by Associated Press and Reuters

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